For most of us, the word sauna is associated with Scandinavian tradition and brings to mind birch-whipping frivolities in snowier climes. Originating in Finland over 2000 years ago, saunas, or Finnish baths as they’re also known, consist of a small wooden hut filled with either dry heat or steam at temperatures in the range of 70°C to 100°C. Used for centuries in Nordic countries as a way to relax and socialise throughout bitter winters, the sauna concept has gained increasing popularity further afield in recent years, with the UK no exception. It is now commonplace for swimming pools, gyms and spas to include a sauna or steam room as part of their services, with the abundant health benefits now more widely understood. Although not to everyone’s taste, many adherents swear by the cleansing, detoxifying and relaxing effects of this practise—not to mention what it can do for a hangover.
The most traditional Finnish-style saunas have high temperatures of between 90 to 110°C and a very dry atmosphere. Although this might sound alarming, a dry sauna’s relatively low humidity levels enable the human body to comfortably enjoy these extremes without being scalded or overcome. This type of sauna is very popular and ideal if you’re seeking the sensation of extreme heat. Wet saunas, on the other hand, tend to have a temperature between 70 and 90°C with a relative humidity of 10 to 25%. They feature a reservoir of burning stones on which water is regularly poured to generate steam. The steam sauna is a somewhat gentler alternative to the traditional models, with temperatures ranging from 45 to 65°C and a constant humidity of 40 to 65%. This favorable environment allows both children and the elderly to enjoy the benefits of sauna culture, and is a good place to start if you’re an absolute beginner. Scented oils diffused in water will permeate the steam and aid relaxation. As technology has progressed in recent years, infrared saunas have emerged onto the scene, cleverly eliminating the need for steam and water. Instead, infrared radiation warms your body from the inside out and is believed by many to have health-giving properties. Other options include the traditional smoke sauna—a chimneyless room containing heated rocks—and an electrically-heated sauna.
If you’re a die-hard sauna fan and can’t get enough of soaking up that steam, it’s worth considering investing in one of your own - if you have the budget for it, of course. Although an undeniably exciting undertaking, building a sauna is more complicated than you might think and requires considerable planning and foresight. Before you begin, make sure you enlist the help of a qualified professional to guide you through the process. First and foremost, your chosen cabin must be able to withstand both dry heat (over 90°C with less than 20% air humidity) and wet sauna environments of 50°C and a humidity of 60%. These conditions are difficult for most types of wood, so you’ll need to pick your materials carefully and ensure they can withstand extreme heat and humidity. The types of timber most commonly used in saunas are spruce, cedar, pine or aspen. In addition to the internal and external panels and wooden furniture, saunas are equipped with rock wool for thermal insulation, an aluminum vapour barrier to prevent moisture contaminating the insulation, and a thick glass door.
If you’re ready to take the plunge (pun absolutely intended) and build your own sauna, you’ll need to measure up carefully and ensure your chosen plot meets the recommended requirements. The dimensions of a home-built sauna tend to range from 1.20 × 1.20m to 3 × 2.50m, with an overall height of 2m. If you’re keen to lie back and relax in your sauna, make sure your cabin is at least 2m wide.
Once you’ve decided a home sauna is definitely for you, you’ll need to shop around in order to find the best price for your requirements. At the lower end of the price range, a basic modular unit will set you back in the region of £8,000, while a more bespoke model comes in at £12,000. If you’re looking for a budget option, some high street homeware stores offer related products at a much lower price, or even sauna cabins for the garden. However, if your heart is set on the real deal, be prepared to fork out at least £4,000 for a basic 2 x 2m outdoor model.
Once your sauna is installed, it’s vital that you keep it in tip-top condition in order to get the most from it for years to come. After each session, the sauna will naturally be full of moisture, so it’s necessary to combat this regularly. If the maintenance is not frequent enough, the sauna can develop potentially harmful mould, fungus or bacteria. In order to thoroughly clean your sauna, leave the door open until your next session to allow optimum ventilation. To clean the walls and seats, use a sponge soaked in warm water, making sure to lift and dry any shelves or other built-in features.